Help Your PC's Graphics Make Vista and XP Sparkle
Send your tips and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. We pay $50 for published items. Kirk Steers is a PC World contributing editor and the author of PC Upgrading and Troubleshooting QuickSteps from McGraw Hill/Osborne Press.
Windows Vista clearly ups the ante on PC graphics power. No matter how basic or advanced your machine, chances are you can upgrade its graphics hardware to run Vista's Aero interface--or improve XP--for viewing online videos, playing games, and using other graphics-heavy apps.
Find the connection: If the video connector on the back of your PC is next to the USB, PS/2, and other ports that are attached directly to the motherboard, your system has integrated graphics. Make sure your computer has an open AGP or PCI Express x16 slot.
If your PC does not automatically disable the old graphics processor when a new card is installed, enter your system's BIOS (watch for the key to press when your system starts but before Windows loads) and disable the setting for integrated graphics.
And if your PC doesn't support a graphics upgrade, check for a BIOS setting that lets you shift system RAM to graphics duties. Reducing system RAM may slow overall performance, but it might also let you run a program with demanding graphics that faltered previously.
Get the right card for your PC: High-end graphics cards typically need their own power connector. They also generate lots of heat, and often are so big they require the space of two expansion slots. Make sure your case has plenty of room inside.
Upgrade DirectX: Fast-action games and other graphics-intensive programs require a recent version of DirectX.Windows XP supports versions up to DirectX 9c, but to use the improvements in the latest, DirectX 10, you'll need Windows Vista--and compatible graphics hardware that won't be mainstream until late this year. To check your DirectX version in XP, click Start, Run and type dxdiag; in Vista, click Start and type dxdiag in the Start Search box. Your DirectX version is listed under the System tab. The Display tab shows graphics RAM and other data on your video subsystem.
Go to "How to Download and Install DirectX" to see instructions on getting the latest version of DirectX.
Do driver diligence: Download the latest version of your card's driver from the vendor's Web site. Before you swap out the cards, however, remove the old card's driver to avoid problems. In XP, choose Start, Control Panel, Add or Remove Programs, select the current graphics driver, and click Remove. In Vista, click Start, Control Panel, Uninstall a program (Programs and Features in the Classic View). What if you don't see your driver listed? Right-click My Computer (Computer in Vista) and select Manage, Device Manager. Under 'Display adapters', right-click the graphics driver and select Uninstall.
Upgrade on the inside: If you're not quite ready for a new graphics board, you can squeeze more performance out of your system's current graphics hardware by overclocking it. Both of the leading graphics card makers -- ATI and nVidia -- include an overclocking utility with many of their cards. Using ATI's Overdrive utility doesn't invalidate the card's warranty, but using nVidia's Coolbits overclocking program does.
Overheating is probably this trick's biggest risk. While ATI's Overdrive utility monitors a graphics card's temperature and prevents overheating, most other overclocking utilities don't. Rigging an inexpensive thermal sensor like HighSpeed PC's $15 Digital Thermal Probe to monitor your graphics card temperature could save you the cost of a replacement.
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